Rishang Keishing, who expired in Imphal on 22 August, at the age of 98, was elected to India’s first Parliament in 1952. He entered politics without any political background — he was a former school headmaster. He contested the elections on a Socialist Party ticket, lured by the voice of stalwarts like Ram Manohar Lohia and others.
Some say he was baptised into the socialist fold while studying in St Paul’s College, Calcutta through noted Assamese litterateur Birendrakumar Bhattacharya who was in college with him.
As an MP from the Socialist Party, Rishang was a firebrand right from the start, raising issues both regional and national. He was re-elected in 1962 and his power play on the floors of the Lok Sabha soon caught the eyes of then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who is said to have persuaded him to join the Congress. He did so in 1964.
Rishang stood firmly with the party when 13 of the 14 Congress MLAs quit. It is said that he gave the “grasshopper” legislators his blessings before they announced their formal departure, leaving him as the lone member of the opposition in the house. That was in 2000-2001. But Rishang was actually a reluctant politician.
After graduating from Calcutta University in 1946, he applied for the post of a sub-deputy collector with the then interim Manipur government, around 1947-48. When he didn’t get selected, he approached then chief minister Maharajkuar Priyabrata Singh for an explanation who told him to meet Major Ranenglao “Bob” Khathing.
Bob is the other “legend” belonging to the Tangkhul community apart from Rishang and NSCN (IM) general secretary Th Muivah. Bob was then home minister of Manipur.
Rishang met Bob and told him his desires to join the government. Bob is said to have frowned at him and said, “Are you mad… if you join the bureaucracy who is going to look after your people?” That was a turning point in his life. He returned to his old school which he had helped found and started fanning his socialistic flames acquired in Calcutta.
After the end of his second tenure with the Lok Sabha in 1967, he started paving his way into state politics and he did so by forming the United Naga Integration Council. It gave a democratic call for the integration of all Naga areas of Manipur with Nagaland, a move similar to the one being made by Muivah at gun point now.
Later Rishang merged his party with the Congress under certain clauses, cleverly drafted by him, which said, “the Congress Party does not view the demands of the United Naga Integration Council as being anti-Congress or anti-national”.
But that merger move, which gets continuously raked up till now, had placed Rishang higher up in the echelons of the Congress till he became its chief and got elected to the Lok Sabha on its ticket. Since then he had been the state chief minister four times. He was Rajya Sabha MP for two consecutive times, during which he was feted by the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister for being the lone surviving MP from the first Lok Sabha. He later earned the sobriquet of being the world’s oldest parliamentarian.
Rishang was first elected to the Manipur Legislative Assembly in 1974 and became a Minister in 1975 when RK Dorendro was the chief minister. He became Manipur’s chief minister in 1980 and continued till 1988 when he was “hijacked” from his position, despite having a majority of supporters within the Congress Legislative Party by Rajiv Gandhi who deputed his home minister Buta Singh in what is known in local Manipuri political parlance as the “midnight coup”. For it was around midnight when General (Retd) KVK Krishna Rao, Governor of Manipur sworn in RK Jaichandra Singh who was then a member of the Rajya Sabha.
A deeply hurt Rishang had to silently undergo this political humiliation from the Gandhi family. He continued to play a low-key role till crawling back to power, first by becoming the deputy chief minister under Dorendro again in 1992 and when that government was dismissed on 31 December 1993 and the state placed under President’s Rule, and the house kept under animated suspension.
Rishang was silently working his way through Union Home Minister SB Chavan and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to lift the President’s Rule and to become chief minister. It finally bore fruit in November 1994 and then Governor Lt General (Rtd) VK Nayar had to resign from his post in deference to the Centre’s wish to have the date of trial of strength on the floors of the Assembly postponed in favour of Rishang.
In 1995, within two months, the state went to the polls and the Congress swept the elections. Rishang became chief minister for the fourth time.
What made Rishang stand out from other politicians were his patience and perseverance and the sense of keeping calm in the worst situations.
In 1984 Muivah’s cadres ambushed Rishang’s convoy on the way back from his Phungyar constituency in Ukhrul. Four of his escorts were killed and seven injured. Later I had the audacity to ask him if he had arranged that ambush to prop up his popularity as NSCN (IM) cadres were ever known to have missed a target earlier. A normal politician would have flared up but the old man just kept his cool and simply said “No’, adding “Superintendent of Police, Romen Singh saved my life by escorting me.”
Later, when his then political heir Morung Makunga fired a pistol in his drawing room and broke the glass topping of the side table by stamping on it, an unperturbed Rishang just gazed at Morung and simply said, “Morung are you mad?”
Morung later told me that it was next to impossible to make Rishang angry.
The President, Prime Minister and the Odisha Governor, SC Jamir joined leaders across the state to mourn Rishang’s demise. But there was an ominous silence on the part of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Rishang’s body lay in state for a day at his Mantripukhri residence and was to be taken to his ancestral village in Bungpa Khullen in the now Kamjong district. But after a funeral service at the Manipur Baptist Church and paying of respects at the Congress Bhawan and when the cortege was about to be taken, word came in that the NSCN (IM) will not allow Rishang’s body to be interned at his village, an area where the writ of the rebel group runs under a truce with the Centre.
So the body was laid to rest at his Mantripukhri home.
Muivah seems to have taken revenge on a dead Rishang, a man he could not kill while alive. That was the price Rishang had to pay for keeping Manipur as one unit where all the communities could live in peace and harmony together.
(The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman)